• Germany edition
 
Grade inflation blows up German universities
Photo: DPA

Grade inflation blows up German universities

Published: 19 Dec 2012 06:22 GMT+01:00
Updated: 19 Dec 2012 06:22 GMT+01:00

When 80 percent of students graduate with one of the top two grades, questions start being asked. When you learn that this figure was 70 percent as recently as 2001, alarm bells start to ring.

A report published last month by the German Council of Science and Humanities into marking practices across the nation's universities has drawn attention to these disquieting trends. It may provide welcome reassurance to anxious German students swotting for examinations, but makes otherwise for uncomfortable reading.

Wolfgang Marquardt, head of the Council which produced the report, did not mince his words in describing the situation to The Local. "The grades which students currently receive say almost nothing meaningful about their real achievement," he said.

The statistics which leap out of the report make it easy to see where Marquardt is coming from. What does it mean to achieve a "very good" or "good" in Art and Art History, when you're joined by 96 percent of all candidates? Likewise for social science, where 89 percent emerge with top grades.

Law and medicine stand out as the only two subjects in which the majority are still deemed only 'satisfactory' - for all other subjects 'adequate' has fast become the new fail.

An optimist might applaud rising performances - and this is a line many individual universities have taken in defending their results. Others are more sceptical.

"Good results can sometimes simply reflect the quality of students," Matthias Jaroch, spokesman for the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers, told The Local. "Some universities have become more selective about the students they admit, driving up standards."

But he was keen to emphasize that this doesn't provide an adequate explanation for the scale of the increases being registered.

"There are also political influences on the situation. Essentially politicians want as many students as possible to go on to university - and once they get there they want them to complete the course and to succeed," he said.

Marquardt believes that the universities themselves are complicit in the process: fiercer competition between institutions and courses to attract students - and the funding which they bring - may have encouraged them to lower the hurdles placed in front of students. "There is a reluctance to put potential students off with arduous testing," he suggested.

Then there's the personal dimension. "Professors don't want to undermine the life chances of their students by handing out poor marks. They know just how vital these grades now are in determining a student's future life chances, and to some extent they just feel unable to dish out damning grades," said Marquardt.

"Nowadays we have this preoccupation with superlatives. Everything must be the best, must be excellent. But what we need is a bit of honesty - to say that 'good' really is 'good', and satisfactory really is good enough. At the moment we seem to divide everything into two categories - exceptional, and bad," he added.

Global grade inflation

Germany isn't the only country struggling with this; almost every western society has been hit by the phenomenon. In Britain, the number of students getting first-class degrees has increased by 125 percent in the past decade, according to statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Similar trends have been noted across North American colleges.

This doesn't mean that the effects aren't real - and damaging. "Employers are struggling to use university grades to make decisions about applicants, because they really say so little about them," according to Marquardt. "Many smaller firms in particular can get seduced by the marks which an applicant has, without having any means of evaluating them in context."

Universities, too, are apparently having a tough time selecting the best candidates for progression to Masters programmes. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, it appears, has never been more difficult.

"We badly need some more objectivity in the system," said Marquardt.

What both Jaroch and Marquardt fought shy of admitting was that academic standards themselves could be slipping as a result of the rampant grade inflation. They were clear that they didn't see this as the main problem.

"I don't think examinations have got easier: it's just that better marks are being handed out for the same performance," insisted Marquardt.

Given the lack of any comparative data, the question cannot be settled definitively. But anecdotal evidence, at least, indicates such confidence might be misplaced.

The situation which one recent finance and business studies graduate described to The Local made it clear that widespread knowledge of lenient marking had turned many of her courses into farcical operations.

One student Jessica, who didn't want her surname published, described how the whole class would troop up one by one to deliver comically under-prepared presentations, universally culled from Wikipedia the night before - and would then all walk away clutching top grades.

"We were happy, because we had the marks we needed without having to work too hard. The professors put up with it because they came out of it looking good, as all their students had great marks," she said. "Actually, it was almost embarrassing."

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

08:57 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
This is not just a problem in Germany. It may be more a subject specific problem. For example subjects like social sciences, art, history and other non professionally controlled subjects are open to this problem. Industries like the medical and pharmaceutical industry have a vested interest in making sure the cream rises to the top and only very good students get good marks and substandard students fail. Tutors need to keep their numbers competitive with other tutors and lack of proper marking supervision can easily lead to this. Without putting down the achievement of someone I know who studied social sciences whilst leading a very busy life. I always wondered how she pulled distinctions all the time.
10:55 December 19, 2012 by amaticc
In the system where you can pass an exam just by answering a multiple choice questions, you can not expect better. I newer had any exam with multiple choice questions. Every time I had a problem solving part, and if a student passes that, it will need to go on the "oral" part for a theory.

Multiple choice question are easier to evaluate, but these tests hardly can prove real understanding of a topic.
11:51 December 19, 2012 by chicagolive
When you build a society on just reciting and regurgitating what you see or read how can you not expect such results. In Germany, by my personal opinion they put to much importance on the papers in the persons hands versus the person themself. Most of the top companies in the world and alot of the richest people are people who had low marks or did not even finish. These people would never make it or survive in present day Germany but then again being a robot in the society seems to be the current preferred course for now here
14:09 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@ amaticc

Whilst I agree with what you say regarding multiple choice questions I am not so sure that is the issue here. I think it is simply a case of some subjects like Social Science, Arts and History being marked with too much discretion from the tutors to bump up marks. With no professional body with a vested interest in these subjects such as there is with Medicine for example the tutors feel the need to get as many students through with flying colours as possible. In a subject like Medicine I can imagine the big pharmaceutical and medical organisations keeping a close eye on the standards as they want to make sure they accept suitable personell into their ranks. Just my impression on things.
15:46 December 19, 2012 by mobiusro
I am not sure where the problem is if Social Science, Arts and History teachers grade with more indulgence a student that is visibly more gifted or more inclined to the other Sciences? Would you agree that a student that is very good in Math and Physics for example should have to suffer just because he doesn't have that much interest in music or drawing? So in your books a kid with excellent Math skills, excellent Physics skills but just average or max good skills in music and drawing or even sport should get an lower average grade than someone who is good at all of them?
16:11 December 19, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@mobiusro

I don't know what you are talking about. This article is about university and students in topics such as social science, art or history generally get top grades to such an extent that it is hard to differentiate between those who deserve top grades and those whose are bumped up. In contrast with Medicine and Law where generally students do not get good grades unless they earn them.
00:02 December 20, 2012 by jmclewis
Welcome to the American way, all you need now is a University of Phoenix. Also set a policy of everyone goes to college now matter the aptitude with government grants and loans; it would not be fair to deny anyone a college education for any reason.
02:12 December 20, 2012 by zeddriver
For decades we have taught our kids that they are all winners and there are no losers. Maybe that's why there are so many cases of Doctorates with plagiarism issues. The school saw the plagiarism. But gave them the degree anyway so as to not hurt the students feelings or the chances of said student getting a prestigious position. Yes! Yes! that's it! The plagiarism was the schools fault.
05:02 December 20, 2012 by vonSchwerin
For starters, too many German students are allowed to do doctorates ("Promotion"). The Dr. should be only for the very, very, very best. There is a mania about having the Doktortitel, but when every mediocrity can get -- honestly or dishonestly -- it becomes meaningless.

I'd be curious to know what percentage of applicants to Humboldt Uni zu Berlin, LMU-Munich, FU Berlin, and Uni Heidelberg are admitted to humanities and social sciences doctorates vs. applicants to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge.
09:10 December 20, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
@vonSchwerin

My partner has a Social Science masters from the Humbolt and she would be the first to agree that a lot of the top grades were given with a nod and a wink. She was even thinking of going back to the university to study another subject in the knowledge that she can take it easier the second time around and get good grades. It seems the university industry in Germany is one giant white wash to keep people off the live register. I suppose after about 20 years study they can then do an internship and then another internship.
Today's headlines
Germany puts 700,000 WWI docs online
Prisoners of War pictured in 1918. Photo: Bundesarchiv/Bild 183-S45825

Germany puts 700,000 WWI docs online

Hundreds of thousands of rare records and images from World War I have been put online by the German government, ahead of Monday's 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict. READ  

Merkel to push for 'swift' EU Russia sanctions
Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin chat with Fifa President Sepp Blatter (c) in Brazil before the 2014 World Cup final. Photo: DPA

Merkel to push for 'swift' EU Russia sanctions

UPDATE: Russia's failure to help quell the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and fully assist the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 demanded a tough response, a German government spokesman said on Wednesday. READ  

Löw to remain Germany coach to 2016
Joachim Löw (l) during a coaching session in Brazil. Photo:DPA

Löw to remain Germany coach to 2016

UPDATE: Joachim Löw will remain German national football team coach following the World Cup victory in Brazil, he confirmed on Wednesday. READ  

Pressure on police over anti-Semitic protests
A pro-Palestine demonstration in Berlin on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Pressure on police over anti-Semitic protests

Demands are growing in Germany for the prosecution of protesters in Berlin, Frankfurt and other cities who led anti-Semitic chants and incited violence against Jews over Israel's military offensive in Gaza. READ  

The Local List
The 12 best words in the German language
Photo: DPA

The 12 best words in the German language

The Local List has covered all aspects of German words, from the untranslatable to the longest. But we've never done a ranking of what are simply the best words in the German language, until now... READ  

Munich police find 49 refugees on one train
Police arrested three Italians for allegedly driving 25 Syrians into Germany on Tuesday. Photo: Bundespolizei

Munich police find 49 refugees on one train

Police in Munich found 49 refugees on one train which arrived at the city’s central station from Italy on Monday night. Officers in the Bavarian capital have reported a “huge increase” in the number of people arriving illegally over the last few weeks at Munich's train terminal. READ  

Yoga helped Jogi's boys bring World Cup home
Coach Joachim Löw ensured his team had a yoga instructor with them at all times. Photo: DPA

Yoga helped Jogi's boys bring World Cup home

Germany’s World Cup winning football team have revealed one of the secrets of their success in Brazil this summer – yoga. READ  

Court jails student for protest at far-right ball
Josef S. at the court in Vienna. Photo: DPA

Court jails student for protest at far-right ball

UPDATE: A German student, accused of being the ringleader of far-left demonstrators who protested at Vienna’s far-right Akademikerball, has been jailed, despite questionable evidence of his involvement. READ  

Lufthansa cancels Tel Aviv flights
A Lufthansa Boeing 747 at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Photo: DPA

Lufthansa cancels Tel Aviv flights

Lufthansa said on Tuesday it was suspending its service to Tel Aviv until at least Thursday over security concerns amid the escalating Gaza conflict. READ  

German state bans Hells Angels' logo online
Photo: DPA

German state bans Hells Angels' logo online

Displaying the symbols of notorious motorcycle gangs the Hells Angels and the Bandidos is forbidden across Germany, but that ban has now extended to the internet. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Politics
View from Germany: 'Nobody will win in an economic war with Russia'
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
Jobtalk: How innovative is Germany?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
German Bucket List: How many of these can you tick off?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Joachim Löw: A career in pictures
Photo: Submitted
Society
Is this expat cat the world's oldest?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Germany's week in pictures: July 12th - July 18th
Photo: DPA
National
Heatwave to bring highs of 36C to Germany
Photo: DPA
Analysis & Opinion
Should Germany follow France and ban the burqa?
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
Which workers is Germany short of?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Ten best expat jobs in Germany: Which one would you choose?
Photo: Europeana.de 1914 - 1918
Gallery
A German soldier's life behind WWI lines
Photo: Shutterstock
Features
Some of the most embarrassing mistakes you can make in German
Education
Raising the bar for law & business in Germany
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
Photo: DPA
Features
The Local List Archive - Your guide to all things German
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Sponsored Article
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
Sponsored Article
Bilingual school turning education on its head
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,262
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd